Many who spent decades in journalism as I did hesitate or hedge when asked to name the most important/interesting/influential/fascinating person they ever met. But I don't. Sorting through the politicians and pundits, the athletes and actors, the common folk and the highfalutin', one name clearly stands out: Nelson Mandela.
Today I do not really mourn his death, I celebrate his life. They do not come much better.
I was so fortunate to be the South Africa bureau chief for The Sun — reaching Johannesburg on April 27, 1993 — one year to the day before the election that made Mandela president.
Mandela's ascension now seems inevitable, but that year was a roller coaster ride of emotional highs and lows as various factions in this troubled country desperately tried to alter the flow of history. It was only in the weeks before the vote that the far right white extremists were defeated as they tried to defend one of apartheid's "homelands," and the Zulu nationalist Inkatha party and its capricious leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi agreed to take part in the proceedings.
That meant the election came off as a day of joyous liberation, felt by blacks and whites alike throughout the country. Mandela presided over the process with a calm determination, making tactical decisions that were always aligned with his strategic goal of uniting his divided country.
Though the world tried to claim him, above all Mandela belonged to South Africa. His focus was on his country and its citizens. He was not, as others would make him out to be, a communist or a terrorist or, for that matter, a pacifist. He was a pragmatist, on the lookout for the best way to reach his goal. If it meant compromising, he compromised. If it meant standing firm, he stood firm. If that meant becoming a capitalist, he became a capitalist. If it meant fighting, he fought (he was head of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of his party, the African National Congress). If it meant calling for peaceful demonstrations, he did that.
In 1990, Mandela came out of prison and walked into the shadow of an image that had been constructed and inflated over the years by the worldwide anti-apartheid movement. Why had that happened to Mandela? Why not Walter Sisulu or one of the others held on Robben Island with him? Who knows? Maybe because of his stirring speech in court on the eve of his sentence. Maybe because of his charismatic, beautiful wife Winnie.
For whatever reason, Nelson Mandela had become a myth. And now as he left prison, he was suddenly just a man. The literally incredible thing was that not only did that man live up to the myth, he exceeded it.
Mandela's charisma was subtle but powerful. Without saying a word, he could transform a room with a smile or frown that took over every corner of his face. Someone else might be speaking, but all eyes would be on Mandela, looking for his reaction.
One failing: When he did speak, he was not great at it. On the campaign trail, enthusiastic crowds that had been waiting for hours would cry out with unbridled joy at his appearance. But when he took to the rostrum and went on like a lecturing school master, those same people would often drift away.
Still what he said was carefully chosen. Mandela understood that he had been vaulted onto the moral high ground by the sins of apartheid and that it was necessary for him to stay there if he was to lead this troubled nation. He did not forgive his oppressors because of his deep sense of compassion; he forgave them because he knew that fighting would only bring about more misery for his country. And he saw the flaw that ran through the history of South Africa — the victor always put his boot on the neck of the vanquished. He understood that cycle had to end if the country was to prosper.
One other thing he understood — that he should leave office after one five-year term, though he would have been overwhelmingly elected for a second. Africa was littered with examples of leaders who stayed too long, who let their ambitions be confused with the country's fate. He wanted South Africans to recognize that this is about your country, it is not about one person.
There are so many images of Mandela in my memory, the first time I saw him at the funeral of Oliver Tambo, another aging apartheid opponent who, alas, did not live to make it to the Promised Land. Addressing a meeting in a small hall in Tokoza, announcing an agreement about the violence plaguing that township. At many press conferences. On the campaign trail. Speaking to the gathered international dignitaries at his inauguration.
One stands out. He was in court for his divorce from Winnie. A few journalists were in the jury box next to where Mandela would testify, feeling a bit embarrassed to be covering this tawdry tabloid event.
Mandela approached us and smiled. He made a joke. At this painful personal moment, he wanted to put us at ease.
Today, I can only repeat the call I heard at so many ANC rallies: "Viva, Mandela. Viva!"
Michael Hill is the former South Africa bureau chief for The Baltimore Sun. His email is email@example.com.
To respond to this commentary, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and contact information.